Posts tagged Nimrod Sejake
Uncovering One of Ireland’s Hidden Histories - Part 3

The Dunnes Stores Strike (1984-1987)
Part III: Gaining and Losing Independence

2016 marks important anniversaries for both Ireland and South Africa. On Easter Monday, 24 April 1916, armed Irish rebels attacked British forces, fighting against English rule in Ireland. On 16 June 1976, students in South Africa’s Soweto Township began protesting the government’s unequal education policies that had been formalised after the pro-apartheid Nationalist Party came to power in 1948. 

Parts I and II of this series are below and explored, respectively, Irish people in South Africa (Dr. James Barry, The Honourable William Porter, Major John MacBride, and Roger Casement) and a South African in Ireland (Nimrod Sejake). Now, in Part III, the discussion is broadened out and presents some historical information regarding each country during the twentieth century.

One noteworthy observation about Ireland and South Africa that as Irish people gained their independence, the independence of black South Africans was steadily eroded. Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising precipitated a formalised pact with England in December 1921 that allowed self-rule. Under the terms of that agreement, referred to as the Anglo-Irish Treaty, Saorstat Éireann (the Irish Free State) came into being and was comprised of twenty-six of the island’s southern counties; the other six counties, now known as Northern Ireland, remained part of the United Kingdom. Anti-Treaty forces disagreed over the terms of the Treaty, which did not unify the island. This dispute escalated and in June 1922, when Pro- and Anti-Treaty powers began fighting in Dublin, the result was the Irish Civil War, which ended in May 1923 (see note 1). The country moved forward and in 1937 issued its first Constitution. It was not until 1948, however, that Ireland officially split from the British Commonwealth under the Republic of Ireland Act.

While 1948 may be considered a year of celebration for Irish citizens, the same cannot be said for black South Africans. In 1948, the pro-apartheid Nationalist Party won the General Election. Although blacks had previously experienced unfair treatment in South Africa, the Nationalist Party instituted and enforced strict racial segregation practices in all areas of life: housing, land ownership, education, marriage. The 1950s saw increased resistance to apartheid practices in South Africa and internationally; 1952 was a pivotal year that saw, separately, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States begin supporting the plight of black South Africans.

The mobilisation of black South African resistance culminated in the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre (see note 2). The event rallied blacks to demonstrate against pass books (identity cards they were required to carry). In opposition to the law, blacks were encouraged, in large groups, to leave home without their passes, travel to police stations, and turn themselves in for disobeying the pass law. On 21 March 1961, police opened fire on over 5000 blacks who had gathered at Sharpeville’s police station, leaving over sixty dead and nearly 200 seriously injured.  News of the deaths spread, triggering nationwide demonstrations, and garnering increased international attention on apartheid South Africa.

In the meantime, the 1960s saw increased political activity internationally as the oppressed fought against their oppressors—take, for example, the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation Movements in America. Northern Ireland also experienced a Civil Rights Movement of its own against the unequal treatment of Catholics in the predominantly Protestant state. A 1968 Civil Rights march in Derry is often considered the tipping point of what is known as Northern Ireland’s “Troubles” (see note 3).

Eight years later, in June 1976, a student demonstration in South Africa against the government’s racist education policies, known as Bantu Education, proved to be a pivotal moment in South African history. The Soweto Uprising, as the event would become known, occurred on 16 June (Bloomsday in Ireland - see note 4) when over 10,000 students protested over the decree that some subjects be taught through Afrikaans, the language of white oppression.  Police violence ensued including the use of tear gas and bullets. Hundreds were arrested while the number of dead remains in dispute with some numbers reaching over 300 in Soweto alone as rioting spread countrywide. As Robert Ross observes, the photo of young schoolchild Hector Pieterson “became one of the icons of apartheid’s brutality”; the picture shows a young man carrying Pieterson, who is either dead or dying, as Pieterson’s sister runs along beside them.  Ross also notes that the Soweto Uprising, now known as National Youth Day, was “the beginning of the end of apartheid” (see note 5).
 
In 1979, just three years after the Soweto Uprising, the world experienced an international oil crisis and global recession. By 1984, the rate of Irish unemployment was over 15% and emigration was on the rise. 

On 19 July 1984, a warm and sunny day in Dublin, Mary Manning operated her cash register alongside Alma Russell and Karen Gearon, the union shop steward, at Dunnes Stores on Henry Street. In a bid to support the international anti-apartheid movement, Manning’s union, the Irish Distributive and Administrative Trade Union, had issued a directive mandating that union members were not to sell products of South African origin. A woman approached with South African grapefruit, which Manning refused to sell. Manning’s action that day precipitated her suspension and ten of her colleagues walked out with her, initiating what would become known as the Dunnes Stores Anti-Apartheid Strike.

It is unsurprising, given the bleak economic outlook, that having and keeping a job was extremely important at a time when employment was hard to find. This knowledge makes Mary Manning’s decision on 19 July 1984 seem unwise; by the same token, however, that decision made history for both Ireland and South Africa.

Join Ardent Theatre Company in 2016 for Tracy Ryan’s Strike!, which takes the audience through the tumultuous events of the industrial action that lasted until April 1987, two years and nine months after Manning first refused to sell South African produce.

Click here to visit the Strike! production page.

Notes

  1. For more information on the Anglo-Irish Treaty, including a timeline of events, visit the online exhibition hosted by the National Archives of Ireland.
  2. See Tom Lodge’s 2011 book Sharpeville: An Apartheid Massacre and Its Consequences (Oxford University Press) here on GoogleBooks. In particular, information here is culled from Chapter 6 “The Anti-Apartheid Movement”.  Also visit “Sharpeville Massacre, 21 March 1960” here at South African History Online.
  3. The socio-political conflict continued until 1998 when the Good Friday Agreement was signed on 10 April. Officially, the document is called the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement.  Click here for access to a PDF version of the agreement, which is hosted by Ireland’s Department of the Taoiseach (Prime Minister).
  4. Bloomsday celebrates the life and work of Irish writer James Joyce. The day is named after Leopold Bloom, the central character in Joyce’s 1922 novel Ulysses, which follows Bloom’s exploits in Dublin from 8am on 16 June to the early hours of 17 June. For more information on Joyce and his work, visit the James Joyce Centre’s website here.
  5. Information on the Soweto Uprising was drawn from a number of sources including the BBC’s “On This Day: 1976: Soweto protest turns violent”, and Robert Ross’s A Concise History of South Africa, originally published by Cambridge University Press in 1999.  In particular, see Ross’s discussions in that edition of Bantu Education on pages 121 and 122 and the Soweto Uprising on pages 142 and 143.  See South African Tourism here for information on Soweto’s Hector Pieterson Museum.
     
Uncovering One of Ireland’s Hidden Histories - Part 2

The Dunnes Stores Strike (1984-1987)
Part II: A South African in Ireland

Part I of this series highlighted some interconnections between Ireland and South Africa by providing snapshots of Irish people who were active in South Africa during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Those brief overviews provide a broad historical context for the relationship between the two countries.

Part II continues this examination but concentrates on a particular South African in Ireland by taking as its focus Nimrod Sejake who joined the Dunnes strikers on the picket line in the early days of the strike.  Sejake’s knowledge and experience as a black South African trade union organiser not only educated the strikers about the plight of black South Africans but galvanised the strikers’ efforts.  In 2013, the strikers visited Sejake’s family for the first time while they were in South Africa for Nelson Mandela’s funeral.  The Irish Times reported their visit, and striker Karen Gearon summed up Sejake’s importance to their cause: “We kept going because of Nimrod” (see note 1).

Born in 1920, Nimrod Sejake worked first as a teacher and then as a labour organiser of South Africa’s working classes.  He served as a leader of the Non-European Irish and Steel Workers’ Union, was a founding member of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), and was active in the African National Congress (ANC). On the back of the Freedom Charter, drawn up during the Congress of the People in 1955, the apartheid government instigated a pre-dawn, nationwide raid on the homes of activists and their supporters in December 1956. Sejake was one of over 150 people arrested for high treason, including Nelson Mandela with whom he shared a cell.  After what would become known as the Treason Trial, 1956-1961, Sejake was forced to leave South Africa in 1962, precipitating a thirty year exile from his homeland.  He spent periods of time in Zambia, China, Albania, and Egypt.  In the latter, Sejake lived in poverty while he sought asylum in Europe and, eventually, found it in Ireland (see note 2). Writing just months before the Dunnes Stores strikers walked out, Nimrod Sejake noted that “from my organising work…I can to see the enormous power of the working class….Today it is more clear than ever that the working class can change society…” (see note 3).   Sejake’s words prefigure the eventual, but hard-earned, success of the strikers.

In the same article, Sejake credits James Connolly, co-founder of Ireland’s Labour Party, as an inspiration for South African politics:

Everywhere the working class movement has—must have—two arms: ‘an industrial arm and a political arm’ as the great Irish Marxist…once said. Both these arms are necessary. They go together. The one without the other will not succeed (see note 4).

Sejake refers here to Ireland’s Labour Party (Labour), launched in 1912 by Connolly, James Larkin, and William O’Brien as the political “arm” of the Irish Trade Union Congress.  Labour is historically significant in Ireland for a number of reasons including the fact that it is Ireland’s oldest political party and the only one organised before the formation of the Irish State. James Connolly was a signatory of the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic and one of the rebels executed in the aftermath of that year’s Easter Rising.  Bringing us forward in time, Labour was in a coalition government with Fine Gael from December 1982 to March 1987, nearly the entire length of the Dunnes Stores strike (see note 5).
 
The importance of Nimrod Sejake to the strikers’ cause is eloquently expressed during a fictionalised exchange between Sejake and Shop Steward Karen Gearon in Tracy Ryan’s 2010 play Strike!  The scene is set well over a year after the strike began at a time when the strikers are experiencing a level of demoralisation and fatigue:

Karen:  We are still here picketing, the supermarkets have withdrawn their voluntary ban and it’s like we’re in stalemate.
Nimrod:  I know. Often we see change as big laws and policies but the greatest change is in how you commit to live your life day to day. Start with yourself, live how you wish the world to be and let it catch up.
Karen:  Yeah.
Nimrod:  My friend, Nelson Mandela and many other comrades have been in prison for years. Nelson, twenty-one years. I have been told whenever one of the prisoners is ill, Mandela and the others will go quietly to their cells and care for them, empty latrine buckets, bring water and food. I’ve seen that unity here.
Karen:  Yeah, that’s what keeps me going.

This brief excerpt exemplifies the cohesiveness of the strikers (in present-day interviews and public addresses individual strikers will refer to “our heart”, “our throat”, illustrating their continued solidarity) and their connection to Sejake. As Veronica (Vonnie) Monroe observed in 2013: “He was even more special to us than Nelson Mandela, because we spent so much time in his company. Mandela is a great man, but I don’t know him like I know Nimrod.” (see note 6)

After the strike ended in April 1987, two more years passed before the fall of apartheid in South Africa.  In 1989, Nimrod Sejake spoke to his family by phone for the first time since his exile in 1962.  In 1991, Sejake returned to a South Africa that was, technically, free from apartheid.  However, his life of activism continued as he sought justice for those whose land had been illegally seized under the apartheid regime.  While there was an overwhelming amount of international press dedicated to Nelson Mandela’s death in 2013, Nimrod Sejake died in relative obscurity in 2004.

…[T]hrough the power of the working class it is possible to bring SA to a standstill, and overthrow that powerful regime. What we have to do first is to organise the workers. Then we shall be facing battle from a position of power, where we can tell the employers there are two things existing here - you own the means of production, but we own the labour-power, and if you don't agree, we fold our hands and your industry will be paralysed. (see note 7)
                        —Nimrod Sejake, 1983-1984

Click here to visit the Strike! production page.

Notes

  1. Read the 13 December 2013 Irish Times article “‘We kept going because of Nimrod,’ Dunnes group tell activist’s family” here in its entirety.
  2. Sources: Treason Trial: Jabulani C. Buthelzi’s Rolihlahla Dalibhunga Nelson Mandela: An Ecological Study for more information on those arrested as part of the Treason Trials, including a complete list of those arrested, their affiliations, and ages. Biography: (1) Laurence Coates’s 2000 interview with Sejake “South Africa: Interview with Nimrod Sejake ‘The ANC has sold out’ for more information on Sejake’s biography. (2) “Tireless activist who spent thirty years in exile” Irish Times obituary published 19 June 2004
  3. Nimrod Sejake, “Workers’ Power and the crisis of leadership” Inqaba ya Basebenzi: The Journal of the Marxist Workers’s Tendency of the African National Congress. No. 12, Nov. 1983-Feb.1984.
  4. Sejake, “Workers’ Power”
  5. For more detailed information on Ireland’ Labour Party, click here.
  6. Irish Times article “‘We kept going because of Nimrod,’ Dunnes group tell activist’s family”
  7. Sejake, “Workers’ Power”.

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